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Starting in 2013, Google’s algorithm began processing semantic search terms through the Penguin update. Since then, additional updates like RankBrain have made search results much more dynamic and user-friendly. But just because search engines have gotten smarter doesn’t mean they still need help from marketers.
Recently, brands have had success with a relatively new content strategy called the “topic cluster model.” It is a method for organizing web pages so that crawlers can better understand how they are related. Taking this approach can boost your search engine optimization (SEO) visibility and lead to higher search results rankings.
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What are topic clusters?
Topic clusters are groups of linked content that relate to the same topic and link to a comprehensive piece of content for that subject, known as a “pillar page.”
In traditional site organization, web pages are connected by links but not necessarily in a specific way. The topic cluster model brings a level of organization that can strengthen link equity on pages while making it easier for crawlers and users to find content.
Why are topic clusters important for SEO?
The topic cluster model optimizes your site architecture so that every web page is connected to related content. It creates specific relationships between relevant web pages, clarifying exactly how authoritative you are for a given subject. This has several benefits on both the front and backend of your website experience.
- Link equity: All web pages have their own value. The more high-quality links pointing to them, the more valuable Google’s algorithm perceives them to be. This value passes from page to page via links and is a ranking factor called “link equity.” The overall effect is that high-performing pages offer a boost to others within the same cluster.
- Subject matter authority: Clusters make it easy for crawlers to find your content on a topic. And when they can see that your content is focused on a specific subject, it conveys that you have an area of expertise.
- User experience: In a topic cluster, users have a path to every piece of related content via links. Being able to access all of the information allows searchers to go more in-depth on a topic.
- Internal linking: Topic clusters exist through a network of internal links. They set the foundation for site owners to incorporate an internal linking strategy that strengthens the site as a whole.
According to a digital marketing survey from Adobe, 63% of consumers prefer companies with more polished and relevant content. Topic clusters prove content relevance by ensuring that all pieces of content align with an overarching topic and have a clear connection to other pages on the site.
Enhancing user experience with this type of organization improves the credibility and functionality of your website. Those factors can lead to better performance on key SEO metrics like bounce rate and dwell time.
Topic clusters: Examples
All topic clusters are centered around a pillar page. Users should be able to come back to the main page from any piece of content within the cluster. They can take many forms. Some pillar pages are text-heavy, with internal links scattered throughout. Others are more like hubs with visual content leading to related topics.
The following examples demonstrate how the format of a pillar page depends on the topic cluster itself. For more abstract topics like blogging, written content works well. For hands-on topics like home renovation, however, visual content can be much more valuable to users.
It’s important that as you develop your topic clusters, you think about the best way to present your information so users can best find and understand it.
- “Content Marketing:” This pillar page from the Content Marketing Institute defines the term in detail and provides links to all sorts of topics related to content marketing.
Example topics for related pages include:
- Inbound marketing
- Social media content marketing strategy
- Making money with content marketing
- Telling a brand story
- How to repurpose content
2. “DIY Projects:” House Beautiful has an entire topic cluster for DIY home renovation projects.
Some of the cluster content that readers can access includes:
- How to make couch cushion covers
- Replacing bathroom faucets
- Misconceptions about reupholstering
- How to change a toilet seat
3. “Blogging:” The author clearly defines and describes blogging basics on this pillar page.
It links out to cluster content like:
- Monetizing a blog
- Best grammar checking tools
- History of blogging
- Make money with a blog
- Web hosting services
How to make topic clusters: Best practices
Making topic clusters is relatively straightforward with the right planning and research. It requires a clear idea of which connections you want to create and what content you will need to create them. Incorporate these best practices into your cluster content creation strategy for the strongest site architecture possible.
Conduct keyword research
Keyword research is a staple of every SEO strategy. It allows you to find relevant content that actually generates search traffic within a niche. Once you choose a core topic (for the pillar page), you can start brainstorming content ideas to match.
The subtopics should be relevant to both the pillar page’s main topic and the main topic should be related to your product or service. For example, if you have a blog about watersport adventure, it would not make sense to create a pillar page for mountain climbing. Although these are both sports, the subject of mountain climbing deviates from the theme of your site. However, you might consider a pillar page on kayaking or jet skiing, as those are both water sports.
Search engine results pages (SERPs) are another great place to brainstorm. Use the “People also ask” section to find related search queries that you can use for your content clusters. After creating a sizable list of keyword options, you can group them and plan out your various clusters.
Identify the search intent of your various topics
Before you can create content, you need to identify the search intent of your cluster pages. This process begins with your chosen keyword.
Consider the term and ask yourself: “what is the user looking for when they type this into the search engine?” Your goal is to provide the essential information that a user needs to complete their search.
Going even further, you need to understand what your target users are searching for and who they are. What are their demographics and psychographics?
HubSpot has a great template for creating buyer personas. It can help you develop a clear idea of who is searching for terms in your niche. This allows you to make more targeted content that better satisfies your users, which is the foundation of quality SEO content.
Starting with the keyword and going backward, you can figure out where someone is when they look up the keyword in the buyer’s journey. Are they at the top or the bottom of the marketing funnel, or are they somewhere in between?
Someone in the awareness stage may simply be looking for informational content. For users in the consideration or purchase phase, creating content focused on commercial or transactional search intent makes more sense.
To determine what your target audience is looking for when they search a keyword, search it yourself. Go to the SERPs to investigate search intent. What’s ranking at the top of page 1?
Do a content audit of the top-ranked posts. You should note the format of those pieces and what kind of information they provide to users. Are they blog posts? Product pages? Videos?
After reading a few posts, you should have a better idea of what content you need to create to rank well for that term.
Create your cluster content
With specific keywords and a clearly defined user intent in mind, you can create your cluster content. Cluster pages should go in-depth and offer you a chance to explain a topic in greater detail.
- Avoids keyword stuffing
- Uses simple sentence structure
- Has headings to organize the page
- Includes images when appropriate
- Explains a topic comprehensively
- Provides internal and outbound links to helpful sources
Writing great content is easy when you always keep user experience in mind.
The more functional and helpful your content, the higher its value to users, and by extension, search engines. Make sure that you optimize images, test your site’s mobile performance, and follow other SEO best practices to build the best cluster content that you can.
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Build your pillar page
The pillar page is where you touch on several different points of interest. It is a long-form post that should offer users a general overview of a core topic of your site. Since most people don’t start with the topic cluster approach, the pillar page often is created long after a library of cluster pages have been created about this core topic.
If you’re building a pillar page for existing content, you’ll need to find a common thread between the pages. This thread will be the main topic for the pillar content. This is slightly easier to identify when you plan your topic clusters ahead of actually creating the content.
Avoid focusing exclusively on long-tail keywords, as those are too specific for the main topic. The best options are terms with high search volumes. That’s because your pillar page is designed to pull in organic traffic and redirect it to other areas of your website that focus on more long-tail topics.
Once you know the main topic, you can break down the topic into multiple categories, which will become your headers. Some common pieces of information that you can include on your pillar page are:
- Practical application
- Real-world examples
For each section that you add, you should link out to cluster content using related keywords. The goal of this page is to get users to visit other pages on your website.
Internally link your pillar and cluster content
Internal links are a crucial component of the topic cluster approach. There is no topic cluster without links to and from cluster content and pillar pages.
Search engines need these links to find new content pages to crawl and understand the relationships between them. Visitors need them to find your other pages.
Links form your website structure, and any pages without an internal link won’t benefit from the strength of the entire system.
Not only do these links improve website crawling and user experience, but they also pass PageRank between each other. If one page earns several backlinks and is connected to the others within its topic cluster, the entire content grouping performs better.
Establish these connections by linking all of your cluster pages to the related pillar pages. The anchor text you use for a hyperlink should relate to the page’s target keyword. This provides crawlers with additional context, further helping them identify related topics.
As you add new pieces of content, make sure you internally link to them from older posts. This ensures that every page has at least one bridge attaching to the rest of the pillar content.
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Search algorithms are undoubtedly much more sophisticated now than they were a decade ago. But content strategists can still tap into the structure of the topic cluster model to increase their potential rankings. This type of content organization will help crawlers identify semantic relationships between web pages and boost the performance of a cluster as a whole.
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